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Entangled right whale found near death off Nantucket

Dragon, a 19-year-old female North Atlantic right whale, was found entangled and extremely ill 45 miles south of Nantucket Monday.
Dragon, a 19-year-old female North Atlantic right whale, was found entangled and extremely ill 45 miles south of Nantucket Monday.Marianna Hagbloom (New England Aquarium) (custom credit)/Marianna Hagbloom (New England Aquarium)

A North Atlantic right whale is near death after becoming entangled in fishing gear, a serious blow to the endangered species.

“The potential loss of a mother is particularly devastating," researchers at the New England Aquarium said in a statement Friday.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted Dragon, a 19-year-old whale who has given birth three times, while conducting an aerial survey about 45 miles south of Nantucket Monday.

Dragon was excessively thin, unusually gray, and had a buoy stuck in the right side of her mouth when researchers found her in a group of about 15 whales.

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Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist who has worked on the aquarium’s Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program since 1983, said the buoy had likely kept the whale from closing her mouth for months.

“She was moving slowly and taking short dives, but did not appear to be feeding,” Knowlton said.

A rescue team from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown will try to save the whale, officials said.

“It is both sad and discouraging to see Dragon, a whale we have followed from her birth through to maturity, entangled and in such poor health,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist for the aquarium.

“The hope for this species rides on the broad backs of these calving females," Hamilton added. "I fear we will lose this whale just as she enters what should be the prime of her reproductive life.”

Dragon with her first calf on Feb. 8, 2008.
Dragon with her first calf on Feb. 8, 2008.Clearwater Marine Aquarium (custom credit)/Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Dragon gave birth to a calf for the first time when she was 7 years old, researchers said. The calf died from unknown causes within a week of being spotted, but Dragon gave birth again two years later. That female calf has been doing well and will soon reach reproduction age, Hamilton said.

Dragon’s third calf was born in 2016, but hasn’t been seen since that year, researchers said.

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Dragon was last seen in Cape Cod Bay last April. They aren’t sure where she became entangled.

Increasingly, whales are sustaining severe or fatal injuries from entanglements, researchers said.

“In fact, 86.1 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once with more than half of them entangled twice or more, some as many as eight times over the course of their lives,” researchers said.

Only seven North Atlantic right whales were born last year, while at least 10 died. Ten calves have been born so far this year, but one was badly injured by a boat propeller and is being monitored closely to see if it will live, officials said.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.